March 14, 2019

House, Senate send identical education spending plans to the governor

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The state Senate and House of Representatives on Wednesday approved identical plans for how New Mexico should spend a big boost in public education funding, sending the two measures to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Both Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 5 provide for an additional $450 million in public education spending next year, including $113 million aimed at providing support for at-risk students and an extra $38 million to increase teacher pay.

While much of the content of the bills mirrored earlier versions debated last week, there was one difference: A one-time increase in annual base pay for teachers, tied to the level of their teaching license, will amount to $2,000 less than what was included in the previous bills.

The original plan was to start those teachers at $42,000 (tier one license), $52,000 (tier two) and $62,000 (tier three), with subsequent raises so that over the next few years they would eventually start earning salaries closer to $46,000, $56,000 and $66,000.

Instead, under the bills approved Wednesday, teachers would start off earning base pay of $40,000, $50,000 and $60,000, with no immediate raises following.

That change would save about $150 million, Rep. G. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque, said.

Romero, a co-sponsor of the House bill, said, “This is a pretty big moment in public education, that we are going to be putting so much money where it belongs… for at-risk students, teacher pay increases to help retain and recruit teachers into the future.”

The bills sailed through both chambers with little debate. The Senate voted 37-0 for the House version of the bill, and the House voted 43-19 for the Senate version of the bill.

Shortly after approving the Senate education bill, the House rejected the Senate’s overall state budget, leaving the two legislative bodies to hammer out a compromise before the Legislature adjourns on Saturday.

However, the fate of the education spending plan should not be muddied by that conflict, Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, said, because it “will fit into either framework so it doesn’t impact it.”

The governor, as well as many legislators, have cited public education as a top priority this year as state government enjoys a revenue surplus from an oil and gas boom. Not only is the state often ranked near or at the bottom of most national reports on public education, but the state has to fulfill a state District Court ruling in a lawsuit that says New Mexico has shortchanged several groups of students with the highest needs — those learning English as a second language, special-needs students, low-income kids and Native American children.

District Judge Sarah Singleton of Santa Fe said state leaders and the Public Education Department have violated the state constitution and “the rights of at-risk students by failing to provide them with a uniform statewide system of free public schools sufficient for their education.”

Singleton did not attempt to place a price tag on reforms needed to meet her mandates. She gave the Legislature and governor until April 15 to come up with a plan to satisfy the court’s directives.